Reisen in Nordamerika: From Ontonagon to the mouth of the Bois-brule (Part 1)

October 16, 2013

CAUTION:  This translation was made using Google Translate by someone who neither speaks nor reads German.  It should not be considered accurate by scholarly standards.

Deutsch: Der bayrische Reisende, Geograph und ...

Moritz Wagner (1813-1887) (Wikimedia Images)

Americans love travelogues.  From  de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, to Twain’s Roughing It, to Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a few pages of a well-written travelogue by a random interloper can often help a reader picture a distant society more clearly than volumes of documents produced by actual members of the community.  And while travel writers often misinterpret what they see, their works remain popular long into the future.  When you think about it, this isn’t surprising.  The genre is built on helping unfamiliar readers interpret a place that is different, whether by space or time, from the one they inhabit.  The travel writer explains everything in a nice summary and doesn’t assume the reader knows the subject.

You can imagine, then, my excitement when I accidentally stumbled upon a largely-unknown and untranslated travelogue from 1852 that devotes several pages to to the greater Chequamegon region. 

I was playing around on Google Books looking for variants of Chief Buffalo’s name from sources in the 1850s.  Those of you who read regularly know that the 1850s were a decade of massive change in this area, and the subject of many of my posts.  I was surprised to see one of the results come back in German.  The passage clearly included the words Old Buffalo, Pezhickee, La Pointe, and Chippewa, but otherwise, nothing.  I don’t speak any German, and I couldn’t decipher all the letters of the old German font.   

Karl (Carl) Ritter von Scherzer (1821-1903) (Wikimedia Images)

The book was Reisen in Nordamerika in den Jahren 1852 und 1853 (Travels in North America in the years 1852 and 1853) by the Austrian travel writers Dr. Moritz Wagner and Dr. Carl Scherzer.  These two men traveled throughout the world in the mid 19th-century and became well-known figures in Europe as writers, government officials, and scientists.  In America, however, Reisen in Nordamerika never caught on.  It rests in a handful of libraries, but as far as I can find, it has never been translated into English. 

Chapter 21, From Ontonagon to the Mouth of the Bois-brule River, was the chapter I was most interested in.  Over the course of a couple of weeks, I plugged paragraphs into Google Translate, about 50 pages worth. 

Here is the result (with the caveat that it was e-translated, and I don’t actually know German).  Normally I clog up my posts with analysis, but I prefer to let this one stand on its own.  Enjoy:

             

XXI

From Ontonagon to the mouth of the Bois-brule River–Canoe ride to Magdalen Island–Porcupine Mountains–Camping in the open air–A dangerous canoe landing at night–A hospitable Jewish family–The island of La Pointe–The American Fur Company–The voyageurs or courriers de bois–Old Buffalo, the 90 year-old Chippewa chief–A schoolhouse and an examination–The Austrian Franciscan monk–Sunday mass and reflections on the Catholic missions–Continuing the journey by sail–Nous sommes degrades–A canoeman and apostle of temperance–Fond du lac–Sauvons-nous!

On September 15th, we were under a cloudless sky with the thermometer showing 37°F.  In a birch canoe, we set out for Magdalene Island (La Pointe).  Our intention was to drive up the great Lake Superior to its western end, then up the St. Louis and Savannah Rivers, to Sandy Lake on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River.  Our crew consisted of a young Frenchman of noble birth and education and a captain of the U.S. Navy.  Four French Canadians were the leaders of the canoes.  Their trustworthy, cheerful, sprightly, and fearless natures carried us so bravely against the thundering waves, that they probably could have even rowed us across the river Styx.

Upon embarkation, an argument broke out between passengers and crew over the issue of overloading the boat.  It was only conditioned to hold our many pieces of baggage and the provisions to be acquired along the way.  However, our mercenary pilot produced several bags and packages, for which he could be well paid, by carrying them Madeline Island as freight.

Shortly after our exit, the weather hit us and a strong north wind obliged us to pull to shore and make Irish camp, after we had only covered four English miles to the Attacas (Cranberry) Rive,r one of the numerous mountain streams that pour into Lake Superior.  We brought enough food from Ontonagon to provide for us for approximately 14 days of travel.  The settlers of La Pointe, which is the last point on the lake where whites live, provided for themselves only scanty provisions.  A heavy bag of ship’s biscuit was at the end of one canoe, and a second sack contained tea, sugar, flour, and some rice.  A small basket contained our cooking and dining utensils.

The captain believed that all these supplies would be unecessary because the bush and fishing would provide us with the richest delicacies.  But already in the next lunch hour, when we caught sight of no wild fowl, he said that we must prepare the rice.  It was delicious with sugar.  Dry wood was collected and a merry flickering fire prepared.  An iron kettle hung from birch branches crossed akimbo, and the water soon boiled and evaporated.  The sea air was fresh, and the sun shone brightly.  The noise of the oncoming waves sounded like martial music to the unfinished ear, so we longed for the peaceful quiet lake.  The shore was flat and sandy, but the main attraction of the scenery was in the gigantic forest trees and the richness of their leafy ornaments.

At a quarter to 3 o’clock, we left the bivouac as there was no more wind, and by 3 o’clock, with our camp still visible, the water became weaker and weaker and soon showed tree and cloud upon its smooth surface.  We passed the Porcupine Mountains, a mountain range made of trapp geological formation.  We observed that some years ago, a large number of inexperienced speculators sunk shafts and made a great number of investments in anticipation of a rich copper discovery.  Now everything is destroyed and deserted and only the green arbor vitae remain on the steep trap rocks.

Our night was pretty and serene, so we went uninterrupted until 1 o’clock in the morning.  Our experienced boatmen did not trust the deceptive smoothness of the lake, however, and they uttered repeated fears that storms would interrupt our trip.  It happens quite often that people who travel in late autumn for pleasure or necessity from Ontonagon to Magdalene Island, 70 miles away, are by sea storms prevented from travelling that geographically-small route for  as many as 6 or 8 days.

Used to the life of the Indians in the primeval forests, for whom even in places of civilization prefer the green carpet under the open sky to the soft rug and closed room, the elements could not dampen the emotion of the paddlers of the canoe or force out the pleasure of the chase.*  But for Europeans, all sense of romantic adventure is gone when in such a forest for days without protection from the heavy rain and without shelter from the cold eeriness for his shivering limbs.

(*We were accompanied on our trip throughout the lakes of western Canada by half-Indians who had paternal European blood in their veins.  Yet so often, a situation would allow us to spend a night inside rather than outdoors, but they always asked us to choose to Irish camp outside with the Indians, who lived at the various places.  Although one spoke excellent English, and they were both drawn more to the great American race, they thought, felt, and spoke—Indian!)

It is amazing the carelessness with which the camp is set near the sparks of the crackling fire.  An overwhelming calm is needed to prevent frequent accidents, or even loss of human life, from falling on the brands.  As we were getting ready to continue our journey early in the morning, we found the front part of our tent riddled with a myriad of flickering sparks.

16 September (50° Fahrenheit)*)  Black River, seven miles past Presque Isle.  Gradually the shore area becomes rolling hills around Black River Mountain, which is about 100 feet in height.  Frequently, immense masses of rock protrude along the banks and make a sudden landing impossible.  This difficulty to reach shore, which can stretch for several miles long, is why a competent captain will only risk a daring canoe crossing on a fairly calm lake.

(*We checked the thermometer regularly every morning at 7 o’clock, and when travel conditions allowed it, at noon and evening.)

At Little Girl’s Point, a name linked to a romantic legend, we prepared lunch from the unfinished bread from the day before.  We had rice, tea, and the remains of the bread we brought from a bakery in Ontonagon from our first days.

In the afternoon, we met at a distance a canoe with two Indians and a traveler going in an easterly direction.  We got close enough to ask some short questions in telegraph style.  We asked, “Where do you go?  How is the water in the St. Louis and Savannah River?”

We were answered in the same brevity that they were from Crow Wing going to Ontonagon, and that the rivers were almost dried from a month-long lack of rain.

The last information was of utmost importance to us for it changed, all of a sudden, the fibers of our entire itinerary.  With the state of the rivers, we would have to do most of the 300-mile long route on foot which neither the advanced season of the year, nor the sandy steppes invited.  If we had been able to extend our trip, we could have visited Itasca Lake, the cradle of the Mississippi, where only a few historically-impressive researchers and travelers have passed near:  Pike, Cass, Schoolcraft, Nicollet, and to our knowledge, no Austrian.

However, this was impossible considering our lack of necessary academic preparation and in consideration of the economy of our travel plan.  We do not like the error, we would almost say vice, of so many travelers who rush in hasty discontent, supported by modern transport, through wonderful parts of creation without gaining any knowledge of the land’s physical history and the fate of its inhabitants.*

(*We were told here recently of such a German tourist who traveled through Mexico in only a fortnight– i.e. 6 days from Veracruz to the capital and 6 days back with only two days in the capital!)

While driving, the boatmen sang alternately.  They were, for the most part, frivolous love songs and not of the least philological or ethnographic interest.

After 2 o’clock, we passed the rocks of the Montreal River.  They run for about six miles with a long drag reaching up to an altitude of 100 feet.  There are layers of shale and red sandstone, all of which run east to west.  By weathering, they have obtained such a dyed-painting appearance, that you can see in their marbled colors something resembling a washed-out image.

The Montreal* is a major tributary of Lake Superior.  About 300 steps up from where it empties into the lake, it forms a very pretty waterfall surrounded by an impressive pool.   Rugged cliffs form the 80’ falls over a vertical sandstone layer and form a lovely valley.  The width of the Montreal is 10’, and it also forms the border between the states of Michigan and Wisconsin.

(*Indian:  Ka-wa’-si-gi-nong sepi, the white flowing falls.)

We stayed in this cute little bay for over an hour as our frail canoes had begun to take on a questionable amount of water as the result of some wicked stone wounds.

Up from Montreal River heading towards La Pointe, the earlier red sandstone formation starts again, and the rich shaded hills and rugged cliffs disappear suddenly.  Around 6 o’clock, we rested for half an hour at the mouth of the Bad River of Lake Superior.  We quickly prepared our evening snack as the possibility of reaching Magdalene Island that same night was still in contention.

Across from us, on the western shore of Bad River*, we saw Indians by a warm fire.  One of the boatmen suspected they’d come back from catching fish, and he called in a loud voice across the river asking if they wanted to come over and sell us some.  We took their response, and soon shy Indian women (squaws) appeared.  Lacking a male, they dreaded to get involved in trading with Whites, and did not like the return we offered.

(*On Bad River, a Methodist Mission was founded in 1841.  It consists of the missionary, his wife, and a female teacher.  Their sphere of influence is limited to dispensing divine teaching only to those wandering tribes of Chippewa Indians that come here every year during the season of fishing, to divest the birch tree of its bark, and to build it into a shelter).

A part of our nightly trip was spent fantastically in blissful contemplation of the wonders above us and next to us.  Night sent the cool fragrance of the forest to our lonely rocking boat, and the sky was studded with stars that sparkled through the green branches of the woods.  Soon, luminous insects appeared on the tops of the trees in equally brilliant bouquets.

At 11 o’clock at night, we saw a magnificent aurora borealis, which left such a bright scent upon the dark blue sky.  However, the theater soon changed scene, and a fierce south wind moved in incredibly fast.  What had just been a quietly slumbering lake, as if inhabited by underwater ghosts, struck the alarm and suddenly tumultuous waves approached the boat.  With the faster waves wanting to forestall the slower, a raging tumult arose resembling the dirt thrown up by great wagon wheels.

We were directly in the middle of that powerful watery surface, about one and one half miles from the mainland and from the nearest south bank of the island.  It would have been of no advantage to reverse course as it required no more time to reach the island as to go back.  At the outbreak of this dangerous storm, our boatmen were still determined to reach La Pointe.

But when several times the beating waves began to fill our boat from all sides with water, the situation became much more serious.  As if to increase our misery, at almost the same moment a darkness concealed the sky and gloomy clouds veiled the stars and northern lights, and with them went our cheerful countenance.

Now singing, our boatmen spoke with anxious gestures and an unintelligible patois to our fellow traveler.  The captain said jokingly, that they took counsel to see who should be thrown in the water first should the danger increase.    We replied in a like manner that it was never our desire to be first and that we felt the captain should keep that honor.  Fortunately, all our concern soon ended as we landed at La Pointe (Chegoimegon).

To be continued…

CAUTION:  This translation was made using Google Translate by someone who neither speaks nor reads German.  It should not be considered accurate by scholarly standards.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: